God-centeredness and the Benedict Option

If you’re anything like me you’ve been following with interest the discussion over on Rod Dreher’s blog (and multiple other places) about the “Benedict Option”. In brief, it’s the idea that the external culture is now antithetical enough to orthodox Christianity that those who want to pursue moral lives according to that code will have to follow a path akin to that of St. Benedict of Nursia. St. Benedict left the chaos of Rome during the fall of the Western Roman Empire in order to draw closer to God, and (almost accidentally, it seems) founded a monastic order. They “kept the faith alive” over the next few centuries, and “laid the groundwork for the rebirth of Christian society”.

It’s being called the “Benedict Option”, but its principles have much in common with more than a few different movements over the centuries. In fact, a lot of the ideas I’ve seen are things that have occurred in the Church as trends even as recently as the latter half of the last century. The Charismatic Renewal, on its face, might not seem to be as radical and countercultural a shift as the proposed Options, but some of the longest lasting fruits of that Renewal are manifest in some lay Christian communities which have espoused the spirit of St. Benedict, if not the terminology.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that these groups are the manifestation of the BenOp as envisioned by Dreher et al. Their detachment from the sacramental, their radically ecumenical nature, their focus on charismatic prayer and spirituality above other forms — these things might be sticking points for a plurality of orthodox Catholics, for example. But many of their practical components seem to me to be essential to the orthodox Christian of the twenty-first century seeking to live in a culture that is now far from fostering (if, indeed, it ever truly was). I’m thinking of small groups meeting together regularly outside of regular Church services to bolster and support each other in faith, a common set of observances and bylaws which go above and beyond what the Church requires (a lay version of the monastic rule), tightly-knit social groupings which are often largely self-sustained. These practices appear to me to be essential elements of a Church that wishes to carry the light of Truth to some far future.

So I believe the roots of the Charismatic Renewal are a good recent lens through which to consider the growing BenOp movement. To that end, amongst other things I’ve been reading Unordained Elders and Renewal Communities by Stephen Clark. This 1976 book explores the fourth century ascetic (or monastic) movement and its parallels to the Charismatic Renewal movement.

I’m only partway through the book, but already I’ve been struck multiple times by how familiar a lot of the ideas would be to anyone who’s been following BenOp as it develops. In particular this idea struck me as germane: Clark characterizes the ascetic movement as having three defining elements, which are —

God-centeredness, radical social separation, and ascetic practices. The order and grouping are important. God-centeredness comes first because everything else in the ascetic life had significance for the ascetic only as it helped him to center on God. Because modern authors notice most the distinctive features of the movement, they tend to focus on the ascetic practices or the social separation as defining the movement. But in concentrating on special practices they distort the very life of the movement and miss its significance for men of both that day and this.

(Emphasis mine.) I think that we are in danger in the present time of falling into precisely the same trap. Much of the buzz around BenOp concerns the idea that it is a radical retreat from the world, or explores what kind of new Benedictine rule could be beaten out for the modern man. But whilst these discussions are valid, too often they get bogged down in the details — or worse, in trying to recreate a parallel version of modern culture that merely eliminates many of the social ills that we see, or emulates the supposedly Christian Western culture that we’ve lost.1

The important question to be asked at all times is not “how much separation will achieve our goals”, or “what rules should we set ourselves to live by”, but simply “how will this bring us closer to God”. Anything else is an interesting intellectual excercise, but a less fruitful — and potentially hazardous — one.

  1. It is not necessarily the case that it would be harder to be a good Christian in a society that fosters those principles as it would to be in the modern secular age. Each person is judged contextually on their surroundings, the challenges they faced and the help they had — the relative culpability of each of their actions.